|Fur Trade Post|
The trading post as it was in 1813.
|Company built:||Pacific Fur Company|
|Later Ownership:||Hudson's Bay Company|
|Part of||Astoria Downtown Historic District (#98000631)|
|NRHP Reference #||66000639|
|Added to NRHP||October 15, 1966|
|Designated NHL||November 5, 1961|
Fort Astoria (also named Fort George) was the Pacific Fur Company's primary fur trading post in the Northwest, and was the first American-owned settlement on the Pacific coast of what was to become the United States. After a short two-year term of US ownership, the British owned and operated it for 33 years. It was the first British port on the Pacific coast of the Americas. Control of Fort Astoria was a factor in the British and the Americans' resolving their disputed claims to the Oregon Country.
The fort was founded in March 1811 when officers and employees of John Jacob Astor's Pacific Fur Company, controlled by Americans, arrived via Captain Jonathan Thorn's ship, Tonquin, as part of the combined land and sea Astor Expedition. By the end of May, they had completed a fort, built with bark-covered logs enclosing a stockade, with guns mounted for defense. In 1811, the Tonquin carried twelve Native Hawaiian laborers from the islands, including Naukane (also known as John Coxe). In 1812, it transported another 26 laborers to Astoria from Hawaii. By the time an overland party joined them in February 1812, they had constructed a trading store, a blacksmith's shop, a house, and a storage shed for pelts acquired from trapping or trading with the local Native Americans. The traders arranged cannons around the perimeter for defense. The post was to serve as an administrative center for various satellite forts such as Fort Okanogan.
In 1811 British explorer David Thompson navigated the entire length of the Columbia River. He reached the partially constructed Fort Astoria at the mouth of the Columbia, two months after the Pacific Fur Company's ship Tonquin.
Two of the notable founders were Alexander MacKay, who had previously been with the North West Company, and Alexander Ross. Both men were Scottish emigrants to Canada. Mackay died in the 1811 battle with natives that destroyed the Tonquin near Vancouver Island. In 1813 Ross joined the North West Company after they acquired Fort Astoria.
The inhabitants of the fort differed greatly in background and position, and were structured into a corporate hierarchy. The partners of the company were at the top, with clerks, craftsmen, hunters, and laborers in descending order. Nationalities included Scots, French Canadian, American, Kanaka (Hawaiian), and people from various indigenous North American peoples, including Iroquois and others from Eastern Canada. They found life quite monotonous, with the fish and vegetable diet boring. Venereal diseases were problematic.
On June 15, 1811, two unusual native visitors arrived: the Two-Spirit woman Kaúxuma Núpika (known in English as Man-like Woman or Bowdash, which is derived from the Chinook Jargon burdash) and her wife, both of the Kootenai from the far interior. The Astorian Pacific Fur Company leaders suspected the two of being spies for the North West Company, but at the same time welcomed their detailed geographical knowledge. About a month later, David Thompson of the North West Company arrived. Thompson knew the Kootenai couple and told the Astorians about Kaúxuma Núpika and her unusual life. Both the Astorians and Thompson's party ended up protecting the life of Kaúxuma Núpika, whose prophecies of smallpox among the local natives put her life at risk.
Thompson, who for months had been out of touch with the evolving politics between the fur companies, believed that the North West Company held a one-third partnership with Astor's Pacific Fur Company. He carried a letter to the effect. The Astorians knew that the deal had fallen through but dealt with Thompson as if the deal were still on. The journals of Thompson and the Astorians are silent on the matter, yet both parties took steps to mislead or thwart the other, while at the same time remaining on friendly terms. It is likely that in this remote region, neither party knew for certain whether the two companies were to be allies or competitors.
Thorn and the Tonquin left for Russian America in June 1812, but the ship and crew were destroyed at Clayoquot Sound, Vancouver Island in the Battle of Woody Point with the Tla-o-qui-aht people there. Astor sent the Beaver to resupply the fort and to carry fur to Russian America, and thence to Canton in exchange for highly valuable Chinese goods.
The War of 1812 between the British and Americans brought tension to this fort, though not as a result of hostilities between the fur companies. In 1813, the Pacific Fur Company officials, desiring to abandon the fort, sold it to officers of the British-owned North West Company. They had arrived at the coast after running low on food supplies in the Interior. Despite this sale to a British company, the British seized the fort with war-sloop Racoon.Begg, Alexander.  Its captain William Black renamed the post Fort George. It soon became the centre of North West Company operations in the region, where the company had no competition for the land-based fur trade. It became an important port-of-call for the Maritime Fur Trade.
[With the foundation of Astoria in 1811] for the first time, the North West Company had a competitor in the territory west of the Rocky Mountains. That competition did not last long. From beginning to end fortune frowned upon the American Fur Company. Its ships were wrecked, its overland expedition suffered losses and hardships; its affairs were mis-managed, and jealousies and bickerings marked its councils; then war broke out between Great Britain and America, and HHM Raccoon [sic] was despatched to take Fort Astoria. The officers of the warship looked forward to winning much prize-money, as the post was said to be weel-stocked with furs. However, it was already in possession of the British. Without supplies, and without an adequate force to defend the place, Donald McDougall, who in [Wilson Price] Hunt's absence was in command of the place, had disposed of the fort and all it contained to the North West Company, whose agents had found their way to the Columbia.
Upon his return from a tour of the Russian settlement and the Sandwich Islands, Wilson Price Hunt found that the fort and its supplies and stores that it contained had been transferred to J.G. McTavish and John Stuart, the representatives of the North West Company. He was not, perhaps, altogether in favour of this disposition....nevertheless he acquiesced at the time....thus all the efforts and expenditure of John Jacob Astor, who had aspired to be supreme in the new region, went for naught and his British rivals acquired sole control of the whole field.No sooner had the North West Company acquired Astoria than it energetically proceeded to occupy the rich territories lying between the Fraser River and Columbia River. Fort George, formerly Astoria, became the capital of the Oregon Territory [sic], and all supplies for the transmontane region were shipped to that place around the Horn, or through the Strait of Magellan. Fort George became a Fort William in miniature. Fields were cultivated, several large buildings erected, and the pallisades [sic] and bastions strengthened. The Nor'Westers were noted for their hospitality and bonhomie. The banqueting hall was often the scene of the revelries of as jovial a set as ever gathered together. Nevertheless the officers were jealous of each other and life at Fort George was not always as depicted by Commander Wilkes, the author of this picture.
By 1818, complications of the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the War of 1812, resulted in an odd scenario: a fort never conquered was returned as booty-of-war. This led to additional complications of international law concerning the region, and circumstances set the stage for the "joint occupancy" of what became known as the Oregon Country afterward. British Columbian historians E.O.S. Scholefield and F.W. Howay state it this way:
During the war of 1812–14 the British government at the earnest solicitation of the North West Company sent out the sloop of war Raccoon [sic] to demolish Astoria; but before her arrival Astoria had passed into the hands of the North West Company by purchase, yet Captain Black could not resist the temptation of "taking" the fort, and as we have already shown, he went through a little demonstration of hauling down the American flag and running up the British in its place. When the war was settled by the Treaty of Ghent, the first article provided that "all territory, places and possessions whatever, taken by either party from the other during the war, or which may be taken after the signing of the treaty excepting the islands hereinafter mentioned (in the Bay of Fundy) shall be restored without delay."
In the negotiation of that treaty the word "possessions" was introduced by Henry Clay, as he later proudly stated for the very purpose of including Astoria, even though it was not known at the time that it was captured. In accordance therewith in October 1818, commissioners representing the two nations met at Astoria and exchanged acts of delivery and acceptance whereby the British Commissioner Captain Hickey of HMS Blossom and J. Keith for the North West Company "did in conformity to the first article of the Treaty of Ghent restore to the Government of the United States through its agent J.B. Prevost, Esq., the settlement of Fort George on the Columbia River." The North West Company after they had obtained possession of Astoria had given it the name of Fort George. it was strongly contended that the effect of this transaction was a formal recognition of the territorial rights of the United States at the mouth of the Columbia. In addition to these claims in her own right the United States also claimed by contiguity that portion of Oregon west of the boundaries of Louisiana. And, further, claim was made by them as a result of the Florida Treaty of 1819. by that treaty, all of Spain's rights passed to the United States. It was urged that as the heir of Spain the United States obtained strength from the discoveries of the Spanish explorers Heceta, Bodega, and Maurelle. In order to escape the difficulty which the Nootka convention naturally placed in the way of any claim of exclusive sovereignty the United States were forced to argue, as they did most energetically, that by reason of the war which broke out between Spain and Great Britain in 1796, the convention of 1790 ceased to have any effect.The British claims, however, did not allege any exclusive right or sovereignty of Great Britain in the disputed territory. The claim was that the Nootka convention entitled Great Britain to a sort of joint right to settle upon and thereby obtain the sovereignty of such portion of the territory as were desired.
Despite the ceremony of possession, actual North West Company and ownership went on as before, and no actual American presence was established in the region from the symbolic repossession.
Hudson's Bay Company
In 1821 the North West Company was merged into the Hudson's Bay Company, which took ownership of the fort. During a tour of the Columbia Department Governor George Simpson spent the winter of 1824 at Fort George, arriving on 8 November. He did not like the fort, finding it inappropriate both as a fur post and a regional depot. He ordered the construction of Fort Vancouver, a new post and depot upriver at a site with better potential for agriculture, to be the administrative center of Columbia District.
Functioning as the company's main depot in the region until Fort Vancouver was completed in April 1825, Fort George was abandoned in June 1825. Neighboring native villagers began to seasonally reside there, "rapidly reducing it to a state of ruin & filth." A small number of lodges, likely maintained by Clatsops, were established "about a gunshot" away from the HBC station. The canoes maintained for the station had crews mostly composed of members of the surrounding tribes.
Fort George was at the forefront of competition with visiting American trading vessels. A reoccupation of Fort George to counter the Americans occured in 1828, the sole clerk having to sleep in a tent due to the station being in a dilapitated condition. During 1829 the post was rebuilt. The residency of the HBC trader was made to be 20 feet wide by 60 feet long. Along with two minor buildings, there was a small warehouse. While ordering a lowering of exchange rates for skins in 1829, McLoughlin focused on maintaining commercial ties with the Chinookan peoples; "if we have none [Indigenous nations] to sell ourselves, we may oblige Our Competitors to Reduce their prices."
The sinking of such HBC ships as the William and Ann at the mouth of the Columbia necessitated the use of the trading post to guide ships inland. Beginning in 1830 the location was continuously used in a small capacity by the company. The Isabella, a HBC trading ship, crashed near the station during that year. Neighboring Clatsops appeared on the scene, offering to recover property from the ship. Despite Chief Factor McLoughlin lamenting that "we have no alternative but to run the risk or lose the property", the assistance tendered by them proved invaluable for the company.
During 1833 the post had a staff of four; an English clerk, a Scottish field manager from Stromness, and two Hawaiians. The growing salmon harvesting operations of the Hudson's Bay Company were focused on the fisheries surrounding Fort George. The company used the salmon to feed its employees, as well as exporting some to the markets of the Kingdom of Hawaii.
The post finally became United States territory only after the Oregon Treaty ended the Oregon boundary dispute. Great Britain ceded its territorial rights south of the 49th parallel. The Hudson's Bay Company gave up its possessions in the region, though the treaty had guaranteed their continued existence.
- "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. 2008-04-15.
- "Fort Astoria Site". National Historic Landmark summary listing. National Park Service. Retrieved 2008-07-05.
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